An ongoing investigation by the Socialist Equality Party
Wollongong Workers Inquiry: the terms of reference
Statement issued by the Socialist Equality Party
Have you or your family been affected by leukaemia or cancer? Do you know someone who has? Have you worked at the steelworks, the Port Kembla copper smelter or the Corrimal or Coalcliff cokeworks? Do you have any information on the severe health problems in the region?
1. What is the true extent of the leukaemias, cancers and other serious medical problems plaguing workers and their families throughout the region?
Last September 20-year-old leukaemia victim Melissa Cristiano first brought to the public's attention the fact that many young people were dying of the rare disease. At least seven have now died in the suburbs just to the south of the Port Kembla steelworks and copper smelter since 1990, including Melissa Cristiano herself.
Our preliminary investigations, combined with a flood of reports from residents and workers about high incidences of cancers and other ill-health, have begun to reveal that the leukaemia cases are part of a wider pattern.
By contrast, the Illawarra Public Health Unit has dismissed every new report of multiple cancers, childbirth defects and other problems as a "coincidence" which merits no investigation.
The Health Unit's leukaemia investigation, set up by the Carr government, has BHP and various government agencies on its steering committee. These organisations have a vested interest in protecting themselves, the government and the major companies.
The Unit's media spokesperson, Marilyn Johnson, has already stated that the long-delayed report, which may not even be available to the public by the end of June, has made "no major discoveries" and contains nothing "controversial".
Only an inquiry that is completely independent of the government and big business will establish the truth about the leukaemias and the broader health crisis.
2. What are the links between the leukaemias, other serious ill-health and the industrial pollution which dominates the region, including the noxious fumes of the Port Kembla smokestacks and the toxic landfill upon which homes, schools and sportsgrounds have been built?
Incontrovertible scientific evidence has existed for decades that benzene, a by-product of steelworks coke-making, causes leukaemias. Yet atmospheric emissions of benzene have not been monitored by any government.
Benzene is not the only factor which must be investigated. It is just one of a cocktail of known carcinogens emitted from the Port Kembla steelworks and the former copper smelter.
In addition, slag from BHP and the copper smelter, containing cancer-causing chemicals and other poisons, has been dumped throughout working class areas over many years.
A postcode-by-postcode analysis of cancer cases treated by a leading Wollongong oncologist has revealed that people living near the Port Kembla smokestacks are, on average, three times more likely to contract cancers than those living 20km away.
For the past decade, the NSW Cancer Council has refused to supply concerned residents with a similar breakdown of the leukaemias and cancers officially notified to its registry. The Workers Inquiry has now forced it to make the figures publicly available for the first time. A preliminary analysis shows that the incidence of leukaemia is up to 20 times higher near Port Kembla and the northern cokeworks.
3. To what extent has the true situation been covered up by BHP, the copper smelter owners and other firms, as well as successive governments, Labor and Liberal, and various government agencies, including the Health Unit and the EPA?
Workers have already supplied information to the Workers Inquiry exposing attempts by BHP to deceive the public. Coke ovens workers, for example, have revealed that management turned down the level of production in Port Kembla's dirtiest coke ovens battery -- Number 3 -- during the recent temporary monitoring of benzene levels.
Premier Carr, with the backing of every Labor MP, has shut down the legal challenge to the reopening of the copper smelter and extinguished all rights of appeal in an attempt to block the presentation of damning evidence. The smelter is an obvious possible source of the leukaemias and cancers.
Carr has also refused to reply to an Open Letter from the Workers Inquiry convenor, steelworker Peter Stavropoulos, challenging him to elaborate on his recent public statement that steelworkers have "carried cancer in their bodies" from exposure to dangerous chemicals.
Carr's comment raises many questions. What information does the government have about the exposure of steelworkers, and by implication, nearby residents, to toxic chemicals? How many have died and why has this information not been made available to workers and their families?
The lengths to which the Labor government is prepared to go to suppress information has been demonstrated by a recent directive issued by the Education Department prohibiting teachers and students at local schools from inviting speakers from the Workers Inquiry to explain the inquiry's objectives and the evidence assembled so far. This censorship is a flagrant denial of democratic rights.
Our preliminary research has uncovered evidence of corporate and government coverups dating back at least to the 1970s. The full record must be probed and made known to all.
4. What do the ALP and trade unions know about the health crisis and what part have they played in allowing the deaths of workers and residents to continue?
The entire Labor leadership -- from Carr through to the Wollongong Lord Mayor David Campbell -- as well as the South Coast Labor Council, has strenuously backed the reopening of the copper smelter.
Labor Council secretary Paul Matters has also admitted involvement in at least one case in which BHP made a cash payout to the widow of a steelworker who died of cancer, on the condition that nothing be divulged publicly about the company's responsibility.
Workers, other victims and their families have the right to know what has been done to their health and lives with the knowledge of the unions. How many deaths have been covered-up? How long has this practice been going on?
An important step
The Workers Inquiry will provide the only means for ordinary people to voice their concerns, assemble the evidence and begin to organise an independent movement in defence of their interests.
The Socialist Equality Party initiated the formation of the Committee for a Workers Inquiry to provide workers and their families with the information they need to cut through the mountain of deceit, lies and half-truths produced by the corporate world and the government.
Our perspective is not to provide the present authorities with information -- already well known to them -- in the futile hope that this may finally compel them to change course.
The Workers Inquiry will be an important step in creating the independent, well-informed and politically-aware movement of the working class needed to challenge and bring an end to the wrecking of lives in the pursuit of private profit.
We invite all workers, residents and cancer victims, as well as concerned students, doctors, health workers and scientists, to prepare evidence and statements.
We make a special appeal to blue and white collar workers from BHP, the copper smelter, the mines and other industries to come forward with information. Your inside knowledge of the companies and the rising death toll among workers and former workers will be vital. Testimony can be given anonymously to prevent victimisation.
We urge those who want to assist to join the Committee for
a Workers Inquiry and actively participate in its work -- by
helping prepare testimony and encouraging the widest possible
discussion on the issues raised by the inquiry.